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Why is this man smiling? - The Indian Express

Kaveree Bamzai ()
4 February 1997

Title : Why is this man smiling?
Author : Kaveree Bamzai
Publication : The Indian Express
Date : February 4, 1997

It's ironic that the two prime movers of the Broadcast Bill are now connected
with Star TV, the network whose plans it may hurt most. While former
Doordarshan Director-General Rathikant Basu heads Start TV, India, the other,
former Information and Broadcasting Secretary Bhaskar Ghose, has just
premiered an eponymous show on Star Movies.

But then it is also ironic that the Bill, which intends to make the State
network in independent player in the media marketplace, actually concentrates
even more powers in the Central Government, specifically the Union Minister
for Information and Broadcasting, C.M. Ibrahim, a man whose party is just one
of the 13 in this coalition government, and which has just 46 members in the
Lok Sabha (Ibrahim, by the way, isn't even an elected member of Parliament).

For, the Broadcast Authority of India, which will regulate the media
environment in the country, will actually be hand-picked by just three
people, on whose "recommendation" the President will appoint them. Guess who
the three people will be? The chairperson of the Council of States (i.e. Vice
President of India), and the Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting.
The Broadcast Authority will comprise one whole-time chairman, 10 members and
four ex officio members -Secretaries of Information and Broadcasting,
Department of Telecommunication, Space and the Secretary General of the
Authority. These men and women will be responsible for "licensing of TV and
radio programme services in the country". Even the Ministry of Home Affairs
in its observations on the broadcasting law questioned the "property of
including a nominee of the President and the Chairman of the Council of
States in the Selection Committee".

The Authority has wide-ranging, almost Draconian powers. It will not only
award licences through an open bid but also decide whom not to award it to in
"public interest". It will also assign frequencies in consultation with the
Wireless Adviser, which in effect gives it greater powers than the
International Telecom Union (ITU), of which India is a signatory.

The ITU is like the gatekeeper of the sky and assigns frequencies to all
international satellites. How the Government proposes to assign a different
set of frequencies should be interesting to watch.

The Authority will also "permit reception of an unlicensed foreign satellite
channel in India if such a channel is (i) free to air, (ii) (a) does not
carry advertisement; or (b) carries some advertisement, but the channel is
devoted solely to international news and current affairs; and (iii) meets the
broadcast/programme standards set by the Authority for the purpose".

As far as licences are concerned, a "person shall be allowed to hold licences
in only one category" amongst terrestrial radio, terrestrial TV, satellite
radio, domestic satellite TV, non-domestic satellite TV, Direct-To-home, and
local delivery (cable network including MMDS) services. Guess who will
decide who is not eligible for more than one? The Central Government, of

Not only will the Central Government decide the restrictions on the number
and accumulation of licences, it may also, by notification, "substitute a
different limit for any limit, for the time being, specified in the
schedule". Apart from this, the Central Government has other discretionary
powers "in the event of war or a natural calamity of national magnitude",
during which it may, in public interest, "take over the control and/or
management of any broadcast facility". It can also, in public interest,
again, require the authority to direct any licensee to (a) transmit in their
services such announcements in such a manner as may be considered necessary;
(b) stop the carriage/broadcast of any programme/service which is considered
prejudicial to friendly relations with foreign government, public order,
security of state, communal harmony etc.

What's more, the Central Government will, in effect, be financing the
Broadcast Authority, through "grants-in-aid" in addition to "allowing
retention of the proceeds of the application fee received with each

Though the accounts of the Authority will be audited by the Comptroller and
Auditor-General of India, it is not clear to whom it is answerable. Is it to
Parliament or the Central Government (read Information and Broadcasting
Minister of the day)?

Because, while the Authority has been asked to submit a report to the
government on its activities during the preceding financial year, and
"containing such information relating to the proceedings and policy of the
Authority, as the Government may prescribe from time to time," it is the
Government that "shall present a copy of every such report before Parliament
as soon as practicable".

This after the Supreme Court judgement by Justices P.B. Sawant and S. Mohan,
which says "the airwaves or frequencies are public property. Their use has to
be controlled and regulated by a public authority in the interests of the

Ibrahim's definition of the public and its interest is very different from
that of others, as he has shown in the Civil Aviation sector.

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